A relaxed grin, unobscured by a mask, lit up Tre Walker’s face as he sat at a media table at the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff at the Davenport Grand in Spokane on Monday.
This was one more illustration that a long, strange journey of attempting to play college football through a pandemic was coming to an end. Normal life was returning. This was how it used to be at the start of a season: a media gathering, bright with optimism as coaches and players looked forward to the start of preseason camp.
COVID-19 took away the University of Idaho’s 2020 season, though, and Walker and the Vandals endured the tedium of practice with no games to look forward to, regular nose swabs for COVID-19 testing, and restrictive daily routines that might have seemed familiar to a cloistered monk. The Vandals finally were able to play six games last spring, finishing 2-4, and Walker, who played in only four of those games because of COVID exposure protocol, was Idaho’s leading tackler with 54, an average of 13.5 tackles per game.
That body of work made him an All-American and the Big Sky’s preseason defensive Most Valuable Player.
Logan Kendall, Idaho’s first-team All-Big Sky fullback and a third-team All-American, says the experience of the past year “makes you a stronger team, closer together. It helped us out a lot.”
At the start of his fourth season as a Vandal linebacker, Walker expects momentum generated by playing real games last spring will carry over to this fall.
“It’s a quick turnaround from last season to this season,” he acknowledged. But the spring games were “an opportunity to work on our craft, work on our skills.” As the Vandals approach a normal 11-game season again “we’ve waited a long time. We put a lot of work in,” Walker says.
Football is physically demanding, and because of playing last spring Idaho’s early season practices probably will be shortened somewhat to give the team an extended recovery, according to coach Paul Petrino.
The Vandals open at home against Simon Fraser Sept. 4 and follow that with away games at Indiana and Oregon State. But the focus of the early season will be the conference opener.
“We’re building everything up to the UC Davis game (Oct. 2),” Petrino said. As the Vandals point to that, “the linebackers will definitely be the strength of the defense.”
Walker’s goal as a leader of that unit is “get everyone on the same page as far as a defensive winning mindset.
“I had great role models coming in my freshman year,” he added, and he can lean on that experience now.
“That Vandal community, that Vandal pride is strong. It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
At the league’s Football Kickoff, he told his Big Sky peers “me and a few of the guys definitely made this upcoming season a little more personal, and I can’t wait to play and compete against you guys and go in every game with that mindset of winning.”
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